Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Say Cheese, Please!

The comfort of cheese pervades palates worldwide.  Whether faced with a creamy Gorgonzola, its blue veins outstretching and beckoning for you to taste or a gooey molten Gruyere oozing through the toasty blankets of a grilled cheese sandwich, cheese is a glorious food.  From the simplest form of an assortment of cheeses arranged artfully on a platter to a winning combination of molten goodness bubbling in a baking dish of pasta, it can be savored in so many presentations.

There are hundreds of varieties of cheese throughout the world.  If we examine the origins of blue cheese alone, Italy produces their coveted Gorgonzola, France is famed for its Roquefort, England is renowned for its Stilton, Spain churns out a stunning Cabrales and every American has surely sampled Maytag blue.  Besides the blue cheeses, there are soft and creamy cheeses, such as triple-crèmes, and firm cheeses such as Gruyere, Ementhaler, Provolone, Cheddar and Gouda, and very hard cheeses such as pecorino Romano.  Cheese can be produced from cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk.  Some cheeses, such as Gouda, are best when aged for a number of years, developing the subtlest specks of crispiness throughout the sample.  The best creamier cheeses, such as true Brie, are not legally sold in the United States due to ridiculously stringent laws governing the pasteurization of dairy products.  Those wedges and wheels of “brie” spotted in every American supermarket are imposters!  Even those that are imported from France were produced in accordance with U.S. laws in order to be exported to the U.S.  No Frenchman would be caught dead consuming that in their native land.  Since the U.S. bans the good stuff, the French enjoy savoring it all to themselves. 

Some of the most comforting of winter fare showcases cheese as the star of the dish.  Macaroni and cheese tops the list, as does a grilled cheese sandwich.  The Italian variation of grilled cheese, the pannini, has been basking in fame in recent years.  Just as a grilled cheese sandwich accompanied by a bowl of piping hot tomato soup is a classic warm welcome in from the bitter cold, the pannini accompanied by a side salad of mesclun greens has taken the café lunch scene by storm.  Macaroni and cheese, however, reigns as the perpetual cheesy comfort dinner choice in homes across America.

Macaroni and cheese can be as simple as the basic macaroni pasta coated with the classic cheddar sauce.  The dish has evolved to also include numerous combinations of stirred in ingredients to add more flavors and textures and ethnic flare.  Utilizing different cheeses has also served to impart nuances of regional and international flavor appeal.  One of the most involved macaroni and cheese dinners I have made to date remains Brian’s favored choice.  It’s a recipe from an old issue of Bon Appetit magazine.  The macaroni and cheese sauce contains several cheeses, and the dish contains breaded chunks of fried chicken.  The finishing touch is a drizzle of Buffalo chicken wing sauce over the top.

Heartier appetites call for the addition of meat, such as sausage or chicken, or seafood, such as lobster or shrimp, into the baking dish of macaroni and cheese.  Choose the ethnicity and/or tone of the dish that you wish to present.  Seeking a romantic variation? Try lobster, with a sauce that contains fontina, shallots and a touch of cream sherry or cognac.  Going Cajun for Mardi Gras? Add chunks of Andouille sausage, green peppers, cheddar or smoked gouda-based sauce and a sprinkle of Cajun seasoning.  For dinner party elegance, go for a macaroni and cheese studded with mushrooms in a Gruyere-based sauce with truffle oil.

Macaroni and Cheese

1 pound short-cut pasta, such as elbows, small shells, penne
3 cups milk
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
8 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon paprika

Preheat oven to 400-degres.  Lightly grease a baking dish.  In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and the paprika until well mixed, set aside.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook for about ten minutes.  Drain the pasta and set aside.  In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Once melted, then add the flour.  Stir for about a minute, then begin gradually adding the milk, stirring all the while so that the ingredients all blend together.  Once blended and smooth and the mixture starts to thicken, remove the pot from the heat and stir in the cheese and the pepper, stirring until the cheese has melted and incorporated into the sauce.  Add the cooked pasta and stir to thoroughly coat with the sauce.  Pour into the prepared baking dish.  Sprinkle the top with the breadcrumb mixture and bake for 30-40 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly and the top is lightly browned.  Serves four.

Stir-Ins and Toppers:
Before baking the above macaroni and cheese, try stirring in 1-inch pieces of cooked bacon and top the macaroni and cheese with diced fresh plum tomatoes before sprinkling with the breadcrumb mixture.  Alternately, swap out the bacon for 1 pound cooked lobster meat or shrimp.

For a Southwestern variation: substitute 4 ounces of Monterey Jack cheese for half of the Cheddar.  Stir in half a cup of diced red bell pepper and one four-ounce can of diced green chilies.  Substitute ½ teaspoon ground cumin and ½ teaspoon for the paprika in the breadcrumb topping.

For a spicy Mexican version: instead of the 8 ounces of Cheddar, use only 4 ounces, plus 2 ounces of Monterey Jack and 2 ounces of Manchego.  Stir in ½ pound cooked bulk chorizo sausage and 2 finely chopped chipotle chilies.  Substitute chili powder for the paprika in the breadcrumb topping.

For a Cajun variation: stir in ½ pound cooked bulk Andouille sausage.  Substitute Cajun seasoning for the paprika in the breadcrumb topping.  Very lightly drizzle Tobasco or other hot sauce over the topping.

For a cheese lover’s dream: instead of the 8 ounces of Cheddar, use only 3 ounces, plus 3 ounces of comte or Gruyere and 2 ounces of Roquefort blue cheese.  Omit the paprika and use finely chopped fresh parsley or basil with the breadcrumbs instead.

From olives to nuts to peas to chicken nuggets, the possibilities are infinite.  Choose a style of cuisine that you enjoy and play with ingredients;  you’ll serve up something exciting every time.

There are three cheese products that I implore every living thing capable of food consumption to avoid.  First and foremost, the green can found in the pasta and tomato sauce aisle of supermarkets.  Kraft grated Parmesan “cheese” is merely sodium sawdust.  This is not cheese and any pasta, or Italian being served such pasta, will baulk and recoil at the mere sight of such a product being placed on the table.  Next, we come to another abomination, known to American palates simply as American “cheese.”  Whether sliced behind the deli counter or purchased as Kraft Singles in the dairy section, American cheese is not produced as cheese per say, but rather the resulting product of combining the scraps of refuse and by-products left by the cheese-making process. Does that really sound edible to you?  The stuff resembles bland slices of rubber.  Try a blind taste test by sampling a grilled cheese sandwich made with Kraft Singles and one made with sliced cheddar; it will be a flavor-awakening experience.  Finally, at number three, we have the famed blue box of Kraft macaroni and cheese.  Are you noticing a pattern here?  I don’t think Kraft actually produces edibles after all.  Once you actually prepare the combination, the result is a plate of elbow macaroni clad in a day glow orange sauce that tastes, well, cheesy, and I don’t mean in the cheese sense.  The ingredient label lists a host of things that you won’t find in homemade recipes.  Guess what?  Homemade macaroni and cheese is really not that hard!  You boil pasta and stir a few things in a pot to make the sauce, just like the one in the box!  The difference is in the flavor and in the knowledge that you didn’t just heap something reminiscent of your kid’s chemistry set potions into the pot. 

Someday, I just might figure out why there is a need for all of these fake cheese products.  Cheese Wiz is another prime example.  The foodie revolution of the last couple of decades has introduced our kitchens to a host of stellar cheeses from around the globe.  While Italy and France may hold the popular title of top cheese producer, there are numerous artisan cheese makers here in the U.S.  For my fellow Long Islanders, a trip to the Catapano goat farm out east will reward with award-winning goat cheeses in a range of varieties, as well as other goat’s milk dairy products, beauty products and the opportunity to be up close and personal with the goats who welcome hands-on greetings and attention.  Goodale Farms in Riverhead also produces goat cheeses and other dairy products.  Mecox Bay, located in the Hamptons, produces excellent varieties of cheese.  For those craving a sampling of several cheeses, a visit to the Village Cheese Shop is in order.  Located in Mattituck and also in Southampton, the market offers an extensive array of cheeses from around the world.  Their selection can only be topped by the cheese department of Fairway Market, located in Plainview as well as in Manhattan.  Fairway’s cheese department is by far the most impressive display that I have seen.  C'est Cheese, located in the village of Port Jefferson, offers a selection of international cheeses for purchase, as well as a dining experience where menu items based on cheese are prepared on the premises for immediate enjoyment with locally produced wines and craft beers.
Food For Thought
As delicious as any dish tastes when it contains cheese, the best way to sample cheese is in its pure form.  When assembled creatively and attractively, a cheese platter can stand as the perfect conversation starter as guests arrive and assemble in the living room or kitchen, or as an elegant close to dinner itself.  Begin by lining a large platter or board with decorative and edible leafy greens, such as leaves of Savoy lettuce.  Arrange three different cheeses on the board.  I like to choose one blue variety, one soft, creamy, gooey specimen and one hard cheese.  For example, a Roquefort, a Delice de Bourgogne and an aged Gouda.  You can stick to cheeses from one corner of the world or go with a combination.  Fill in the rest of the board with rows or stacks of crackers and/or sliced baguette, bunches of fruits such as grapes, figs, sliced apples or pears or berries, and perhaps a dish of artisanal preserves, fruit relish or nuts, if desired.  If the platter is served to conclude a meal, an additional small dish of premium chocolates would round things out nicely.  If you are seeking a simpler, much smaller option, simply set out a quality cheese with a perfectly paired libation.  For example, arrange some sliced Bosc pears alongside a big wedge of English Stilton and a bottle of Port for a very classic combination.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Chocolate Indulgences

Chocolate is the mostly widely used and versatile ingredient when creating desserts.  From the simplest chocolate cake, brownie or chocolate chip cookie to elaborately sculpted presentations such as the chocolate sack or chocolate bombe.  From warm-out-of-the-oven molten cakes to smooth and creamy gelato, chocolate is the ultimate in comfort sweets.  Nothing says ‘I love you’ like the presentation of a homemade chocolate confection.

Chocolate cakes saw the flourless craze not so long ago.  These cakes were dense and very chocolatey, needing very little in the way of embellishment other than a sprinkle of confectioners sugar or a dollop of whipped cream on the side.  Then the red velvet trend came along, with spoonfuls of red food coloring being heaped into chocolate batter bowls of every baker’s kitchen.  In recent months, the chocolate cake has experienced another makeover fad with the addition of red wine into the batter.

Chocolate cupcakes may be crowned with a variety of frostings, from orange to peanut butter.  Last year I baked red velvet cupcakes and topped them with cream cheese frosting and added a finishing touch of red casting sugar and a chocolate heart on top of each in honor of Valentine’s Day.  Now cupcakes have deferred to the back of the stage as the whoopie pie makes its appearance in the spotlight.   A whoopie pie is comprised of two small cakes with a creamy filling sandwiched in between; imagine a soft oreo that has morphed to four or five times its size. 

Loving spoonfuls of chocolate are perhaps the most comforting of all.  One of my favorite chocolate classics is a bowl of French chocolate mousse.  Premium quality chocolate ice creams and gelatos are the perfect pick me up.

Brownies and cookies serve as a backdrop for numerous additions of flavor and texture, from all varieties of nuts to chocolate chips to white chocolate chunks to peanut butter chips.  Other finger-friendly dining chocolate options include candies, such as truffles, bark and fudge, and chocolate dipped fruits such as strawberries and bananas.  If you are fortunate enough to have access to a gourmet chocolatier, then you have a gold mine of chocolates awaiting your indulgence. 

When baking with chocolate, as with any other ingredient in your culinary projects, always use a premium quality brand of cocoa.  Those who prefer dark chocolate should aim for a baking chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or higher.  The higher the concentration, the stronger the flavor will be.  Alternately, you can simply use my trick: if you have semi-sweet baking chocolate and unsweetened baking chocolate in the pantry, use equal parts of both in your recipe.   If a recipe calls for eight ounces of semisweet chocolate, scale that down to four, or even three, and use unsweetened chocolate for the remaining four to five ounces.  Another trick for enhancing the flavor is the addition of instant espresso powder into the batter.  The coffee flavor melds with the chocolate and really brings the essence of the cocoa to the next level; think of it as chocolate on steroids.

I use my microwave for very few things.  I reheat my coffee in it, warm up leftovers and melt chocolate.  To melt chocolate in a microwave, place the chips or coarsely chopped chocolate in a microwave proof bowl.  Heat at half-power for one minute, stir, and then repeat.  Repeat again. Continue this cycle until the chocolate is all melted and smooth when stirred.

While blissfully delicious on its own, chocolate also has the versatility to combine with a number of other flavors.  For instance, the Mexicans have incorporated cinnamon into their chocolate desserts for many years.  From peppermint patties to the grasshopper pie, mint and chocolate create a refreshing combination.  Dark chocolate with orange is a perfect matrimony, and we all know what wonderful things happen when peanut butter meets chocolate.  Mocha was created with the union of chocolate and coffee.

The comfort of chocolate and the aroma of a chocolate delicacy baking in the oven are especially appreciated during the winter months.  Conveniently, we have a holiday this month that allows us to reap such benefits.  Bake a platter of chocolate goodness for your sweetie this Valentine’s Day.  A heart-shaped chocolate cake will be a fitting holiday tribute; or conclude a homemade Valentine dinner for two with these individual molten chocolate-raspberry cakes.

Molten Chocolate Raspberry Cakes
1 ounce semi-sweet baking chocolate
1 ounce unsweetened baking chocolate
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon Chambord (raspberry liqueur)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons flour

Additional confectioners’ sugar
Fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 425-degrees.  Thoroughly coat the insides of two six-ounce ramekins and place them on a baking sheet.

In a medium, nonstick saucepan over medium heat, melt the chocolates and the 4 tablespoons of butter, stirring constantly, until the mixture is completely melted, combined and smooth.  Remove from the heat and allow to sit for ten minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the Chambord, vanilla and sugar until blended.  Whisk in the egg and the yolk.  Stir in the flour.  Once all ingredients are combined, transfer batter into the two prepared ramekins.

Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until the edges are firm but the center is still soft.  Remove from the oven and let stand for one minute.  Run a sharp knife blade around the sides of each ramekin to loosen the cakes.  Top each ramekin with a dessert plate and invert, unmolding the cake onto the plate.  Sprinkle each cake with a dusting of additional confectioners’ sugar and arrange fresh raspberries around the cake.  Serve at once.  Serves 2.

Note: other flavors of liqueurs can be swapped out for the Chambord, such as Cointreau (orange) or Crème de Menthe (mint).

For an afternoon of chocolate celebration, bake a batch of brownies

Food for Thought
Be sure to get your chocolate fix in liquid form.  After all, a body needs fluids.  There is the eternal winter favorite of hot chocolate, of which my personal fave is Williams Sonoma brand.  The product is actually chocolate shavings, not powdered stuff, so it’s rich and satisfying.  For cordial sipping, enjoy Godiva liqueurs.  Cream de Cocao will also serve well for making martinis and other mixed cocktails.  Craft beer aficionados and chocolate lovers can rejoice in a host of chocolate flavored brews, from Young’s Double Chocolate Stout and Ommegang’s Seduction to my personal favorite: Mokah by Southern Tier, the flavor is reminiscent of Tootsie Rolls.